There are some brands that not only survive throughout decades of societal and technological change but thrive with the times. Admittedly, Levi Strauss & Co. has it easy in terms of technological change, with clothing one of the few areas of life left (almost entirely) untouched by the digital revolution. Its staying power is impressive, though, and there is almost no recent period of fashion on which Levi's hasn't left some sort of mark. At the recent Chief Marketing Officer Summit this March 20 & 21 in San Francisco, Levi's' Chief Marketing Officer of Global Brands, Jen Sey, talked the audience through how the iconic brand built itself to last.
Though Levi Strauss & Co. has been around for 164 for years, "The brand Levi's has actually been around for 145 years," Jen explains. "So I feel particularly equipped to talk about how to build a brand that lasts because there aren't that many brands that have been around for 145 years!" And Jen opens her presentation by discussing the power and importance of storytelling in not just branding but in society. People remember stories far more readily than they remember details or brand messages, and it's the stories that carry Levi's historic brand from country to country as the decades pass.
Despite being a fashion brand, Levi's has managed to position itself where almost every brand would ideally want to be: at the center of culture, while not turning off the fringes. It does so through timeless products and mainstream marketing campaigns, alongside progressive social responsibility policies and a commitment to inclusion. Gary O'Neil, former creative director for J.C. Penney, said: “Levi’s has become a brand titan that scales across lifestyle, gender … this allows retailers to cast a broad net that captures a diverse customer base.”
"We were born in San Francisco, created in California, we are authentically American," Jen says. "We sell jeans in 110 markets around the world, but we tell stories about the best of what it is to be American, even in today's world when sometimes that feels like it's in question. We tell stories about optimism, inclusion, forward-thinking, and joy. That's what Levi's is about." The branding behind Levi's is so strong that it barely has to alter its message to appeal in different markets. Even if it tried to, the brand is so intimately tied to America that ridding it of the association would be difficult.
One thing Levi's has excelled at is connecting its changing storytelling with its long and rich history. The messages may change with the times, but the brand behind it remains consistent. It is a company that knows it's strengths. "For us," Jen explains, "[success] is by being at the center of culture. I will admit to you that there are times, in our fear of being old, and our fear of not being cool, we've chased the edge of culture and not been at the center of things - that is inauthentic and it does not work for us. We have struggled in those moments."
Levi's brand building owes a great deal to its history, and it's been consistent in reinforcing its authenticity throughout. What started as built-to-last workwear during the California gold rush became a symbol of rebellion among the USA's post-war teenagers, something about it resonating with disparate groups over the course of a century and a half. As Jen notes, the 501 jean is "timeless," and Levi's' commitment to its most historically popular products is undoubtedly part of its success.
“What has kept Levi’s in the forefront of the ever-changing jean world is their market research— how they test product with a variety of diverse retailers and use that feedback to address various fits, washes, and fashion elements to stay current,” says Billy Rudnick, general merchandising manager for New York retailer Dr. Jays. “But they never go too far into the gimmicks that have misled many good companies.” One example Jen gives is of a recent jean released that is a twist on the classic 501 - Levi's flagship product. Through studying jeans found in thrift stores, Levi's found that their customers have been shortening the jeans and tapering them to slightly alter the style, and so it decided to give them what they wanted with a new product. The brand has evolved rather than reinvented and has held onto its historical authenticity as a result.
You can't hot-wire authenticity, and Levi's is a gleaming example of branding build through consistency and a commitment to quality. As Jeff Fromm, co-author of Marketing to Millennials says: “Brands that create purpose win Millennials’ hearts, and brands that are different and authentic win their minds." Jen's presentation focused on Levi's as a storytelling brand, which builds products for people to create their own stories while wearing. In a world where brands are scrambling for audience engagement, it's the best storytellers that cut through the noise, and Levi's core principle has never been more relevant. After 165 years, the core message of one of America's most iconic brands is as clear as ever before.